‘Minamata’ Movie Review

Johnny Depp in a hat and heavy makeup has been one of cinema’s constants for a few decades now, but in Minamata it’s in service of something a little less fantastical for a change.

Directed by Andrew Levitas, Minamata has Depp play renowned photojournalist W. Eugene Smith. Smith is divorced, past his prime and burnt out, and when he’s contacted by Japanese translator Aileen (Minami Hinase) who begs him to come to Minamata to document the terrible effects pollution is having on the populace, he convinces his boss at Life Magazine, Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy), to let him go on one last job. Battling PTSD from his war experiences and resorting to hard drinking, he quickly finds purpose and direction in uncovering the horrible truth of the Chisso corporation’s malfeasance.

Minamata is unexceptionally good. Levitas’ direction is a little over-stylised, with heavy colour-grading, some woozy angles and what sounds like a horror score at times. The dramatic beats of the story are fairly predictable but given it’s a dramatisation of real events that’s not the worst thing in the world. There’s something to be said for less-is-more, and a slightly drier style might have benefitted the film, but it’s never obnoxious. There’s something a bit distracting about Depp in nearly any role, but he reins it in a little here and doesn’t distract from the story. It is somewhat amusing that he’s been aged up to play someone four years younger than he is now, but the resemblance is actually pretty good. Bill Nighy, usually a hangdog comic presence, isn’t onscreen much but really owns it when he is. Hiroyuki Sanadaalso turns in a characteristically fiery performance as activist Mitsuo Yamazaki.

Should you give it a go? Yes! If you’re interested in the story, which is quite dramatic and actually happened, this is a pretty good way to learn about it. It’s also a solid drama and will have you rooting for its characters in their struggle for justice. You could feasibly criticise the film for focusing on the American protagonist in a Japanese tragedy, but Smith paid a price for his work, his work made a difference, and he deserves credit.